Koman Coulibaly, refereeing and the electronic scrum over ‘truth’

On a parallel Wikipedia discussion page, redactors debate with passion. Invective arrives here, too, starting at 15:44 GMT when an anonymous user writes, "This guy is an ass." Eight minutes later the comment is deleted, but curses keep coming, monkey references, death threats, allegations of corruption, invitations to Guantánamo. Thirty-seven minutes elapse before the thread is purged.

The incident supports Umberto Eco’s claim that sport is “ ‘chatter’ raised to the rank of tumor.” Eco writes more than 40 years ago, in the context of violence at Plaza of Tlatelolco. A recent academic investigation confirmed 44 deaths when Mexico’s police and military fired on thousands of student demonstrators 10 days before the Olympic Games. There may have been more dead; 10 victims, according to investigators, are still unidentified. Eco’s point is that, by design, we experience mass sport and the inevitable violence at a distance. The peril is that discourse replaces reality, to which, in an event such as the World Cup, journalists, stadium spectators and viewers have no direct access. Or we confuse sports talk with conversation about the city, ethics, ultimate ends, love. Sports chatter—“discourse on a discourse about watching others’ sport as discourse”—Eco describes as a “place of total ignorance.”

Was Coulibaly right or not? By asking the question I set myself as arbiter over the arbiter. The non-participant judges the actor, which is the modus operandi of the sports press. For observers and critics wishing to gain an electronic following, quick riposte is essential. Such has long been true in modern football. David Goldblatt in his history highlights the importance of the daily press in building football’s popularity. Papers around the globe rushed to be first with results and comment. Strangely tinted sports supplements, known in the UK as Pink ’Uns and Green ’Uns, slaked the supporter’s need for instant replay, before instant replay was invented.

Was Coulibaly right or not? The New York Times “Goal” blog publishes photos showing what any soccer fan of integrity will confess. It is a contact sport of shirt-tugging and clandestine embrace, morally ambiguous. Coulibaly blows his whistle before the goal. He decides. At the end, he stands tall with his comrades. I admire him. Do I need to say it more directly? Coulibaly in a fraction of a second negotiates a scrum of bodies with more courage than online arbitrators of fact manage over two hours. And U.S. players, once heads cool, speak reasonably—it’s a game, move on.

Was Coulibaly right or not? It is certainly the wrong question. Paul Richards, a University of London anthropologist, in a field study from Sierra Leone writes about the day he was asked to referee a village match. He begs off. His replacement is quickly embroiled in an offside controversy that threatens the entire game. The referee, accused of bias and incompetence, starts to leave. After long consultation, participants agree that “a game played at speed and with passion cannot be regulated without a referee. Better to abide by the referee’s rulings than for the game to be abandoned. Somebody mutters the proverb ‘bad osban beta pas empti os’ (a bad husband is better than an empty house). Order returns and the game is played out in a friendly spirit, resulting in a 1–1 draw.”

Later Richards listens to students on holiday parse red-card decisions from the 1994 World Cup. They discuss match referees at length. Watching a “global social order” constructed before his eyes, Richards realizes that match results are incidental. Raging in the background of the boys’ chat is a civil war that kills tens of thousands and displaces more than two million. Some of the boys’ friends already have been recruited, died, or play amputee football as the result of land mines.

The referee’s example—the precarious, impossible position of the fair arbiter—is more essential than one might think. Nine-year-old boys in an African jungle know that.

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